Google’s recent change in algorithms that choose which titles show up in SERPs has caused quite a stir in the SEO community. You’ve all probably seen the tweets and blogs and help forum replies, so I won’t rehash them all here. But the gist is that a few people could not care less and lots of people are upset with the changes.
It’s something our PPC counterparts have experienced for a while now — Google doing some version of automation overreach — taking away more of their controls and the data behind what’s working and what’s not. We’ve all adapted to (not provided) and we continue to adapt, so I’m sure this will be no different, but the principle is what’s catching a lot of SEOs off guard.
What’s going on?
Google has essentially said that SEOs (or those attempting SEO) have not always used page titles how they should be for a while (since 2012). “Title tags can sometimes be very long or ‘stuffed’ with keywords because creators mistakenly think adding a bunch of words will increase the chances that a page will rank better,” according to the Search Central blog. Or, in the opposite case, the title tag hasn’t been optimized at all: “Home pages might simply be called ‘Home’. In other cases, all pages in a site might be called ‘Untitled’ or simply have the name of the site.” And so the change is “designed to produce more readable and accessible titles for pages.”
Presumptuousness aside, someone rightfully pointed out that content writers in highly regulated industries often have to go through legal and multiple approvals processes before content goes live. This process can include days, weeks, months of nitpicking over single words in titles and headers. Only for Google’s algorithm to decide that it can do whatever it wants. Google’s representative pointed out that these companies cannot be liable for content on a third-party site (Google’s). It’s not a one-to-one comparison, but the same industries often have to do the same tedious approvals process for ad copy (which is why DSAs are often a no-no in these niches) to cover their bases for the content that shows up solely in Google’s search results.
When I work with SEO clients, I often tell them that instead of focusing on Google’s goals (which many get caught up in), we need to be focusing on our customers’ goals. (You can check out my SMX Advanced keynote, which is essentially all about this — or read the high points here.) Google says it’s moving toward this automation to improve the searchers’ experience. But I think it’s important to note that Google is not improving the user experience because it’s some benevolent overlord that loves searchers. It’s doing it to keep searchers using Google and clicking ads.
Either way, the message seems to be “Google knows best” when it comes to automating SERPs. In theory, Google has amassed tons of data across probably millions of searches to train their models on what searchers want when they type something into the search engine. However, as the pandemonium across the SEO community indicates, this isn’t always the case in practice.
Google’s history of half-baked ideas
Google has a history of shipping half-baked concepts and ideas. It might be part of the startup culture that fuels many tech companies: move fast, break things. These organizations ship a minimum viable product and iterate and improve while the technology is live. We’ve seen it before with multiple projects that Google has launched, done a mediocre job of promoting, and then gotten rid of when no one liked or used it.
I wrote about this a while back when they first launched GMB messaging. Their initial implementation was an example of poor UX and poorly thought out use cases. While GMB messaging may still be around, most SMBs and local businesses I know don’t use it because it’s a hassle and could also be a regulatory compliance issue for them.
The irony is not lost on us that Danny Sullivan thought it was an overstep on Google’s part when it affected a small business in 2013. The idea would be that the technology would hopefully evolve, right? Google’s SERP titles should be more intuitive not word salads pulled from random parts of a page.
This title tag system change seems to be another one of those that maybe worked fine in a lab, but is not performing well in the wild. The intention was to help searchers better understand what a page or site is about from the title, but many examples we’ve seen have shown the exact opposite.
Google and its advocates continue to claim that this is “not new” (does anyone else hear this phrase in Iago’s voice from Aladdin?), and they’re technically correct. The representatives and Google stans reiterate that the company never said they’d use the title tags you wrote, which given the scope of how terrible this first iteration is showing up to be in SERPs, almost seems like a bully’s playground taunt to a kid who’s already down.
Google is saying they’re making this large, sweeping change in titles because most people don’t know how to correctly indicate what a page is about. But SEOs are often skilled in doing extensive keyword and user research, so it seems like of all pages that should NOT be rewritten, it’s the ones we carefully investigated, planned, and optimized.
How far is too far?
I’m one of those people who doesn’t like it, but is often resigned to the whims of the half-baked stunts that Google does because, really, what choice do I have? Google owns their own SERP, but we, as SEOs, feel entitled to it because it’s our work being put up for aggregation. It’s like a group project where you do all the work, and the one person who sweeps in last minute to present to the class mucks it all up. YOU HAD ONE JOB! So while we can analyze the data and trends, we also need to make our feedback known.
SEOs’ relationship with Google has always been chicken and egg to me. The search engine would not exist if we didn’t willingly offer our content to it for indexing and retrieval (not to mention the participation of our PPC counterparts), and we wouldn’t be able to drive such traffic to our businesses without Google including our content in the search engine.
Why do marketers have such a contentious relationship with Google? To put it frankly, Google does what’s best for Google, and often that does not align with what’s best for search marketers. But we have to ask ourselves where is the line between content aggregator and content creator? I’m not saying that the individuals or teams at Google are inherently evil or even have bad intentions. They actually likely have the best aspirations for their products and services. But the momentum of the company as a whole feels perpetual at this point, which can feel like we practitioners have no input in matters.
We’ve seen Google slowly take over the SERP with their own properties or features that don’t need a click-through — YouTube, rich snippets, carousels, etc. While I don’t think Google will ever “rewrite” anything on our actual websites, changes like this make search marketers wonder what is the next step? And which of our critical KPIs will potentially fall victim to the search engine’s next big test?
When I interviewed for this position at Search Engine Land, someone asked me about my position on Google (I guess to determine if I was biased one way or another). I’m an SEO first and a journalist second, so my answer was essentially that Google exists because marketers make it so.
To me, the situation is that Google has grown up beyond its original roots as a search engine and has evolved into a tech company and an advertising giant. It’s left the search marketers behind and is focused on itself, its revenues, its bottom line. And that’s what businesses are wont to do when they get to that size. The power dynamic is heavily weighted to Google’s side, and they know it. But the key is to remember that we’re not completely powerless in this relationship. Google’s search engine, as a business, relies on us (in both SEO and PPC) participating in its business model.